Is Conspire a comedy game? This question sparked a long, post-game discussion at OrcaCon. We had just finished a ten-player session about using giant robots to fend off sentient space whales who wanted to terraform and colonize the human-controlled Mars. Between space walls, militant ghosts, a space whale supreme ruler, and a general plan to stuff the whales in a water asteroid, yeah… it was a silly game. It was also a bizarre parody of the 2016 US Presidential Election that allowed for catharsis and a better outcome (particularly if you are a space whale sympathizer). Conspire can be an utter giggle-fest, but does it have to be? Can you use it to play a straight-faced, political deduction game?
I have never personally experienced a serious game of Conspire (serious meaning lacking comedy, as joke-riddled games can have meaningful impact). There have been some awkward moments due to problem players, but those were divorced from the game itself. Despite never being able to confirm my suspicions, I believe the mechanics technically can support an extremely serious game. However, I also assert such games never happen in practice. Between the presentation and the players, something always adds humor to the experience.
Conspire is written to sound like a coherent mashup of paranoid rationalizations and occult propaganda. It is supposed to be over-the-top we use triangles to explain everything. It is absurd describing talking to someone as “asserting you will to power”. The conspiracy theory trappings play up conceptually fun elements like the Illuminati and Reptoids while ignoring conspiracy subjects that are harmful or too real. The text guides players towards the sillier, more-appealing side of conspiracy theories. The game presents a self-aware melodramatic world ripe for comedy.
The book may project an aura of light-heartedness, but the players are usually not indoctrinated. Often, only the host reads the guide to a story game, leaving the players with their own preconceived notions of the game’s attitude and purpose. Conspire quickly encourages humor during the first moments of scene creation. Players suggest topics, settings, and themes they want to explore during the game. The host is instructed to combine all of the ideas as best as possible. The merger of two somber topics is immediately laughable. No one will take SpaceFleet proms and Dinosaur civil wars too seriously. Even if the setting is not funny, it only takes one player subverting the group with a role addition to liven things up. A medic made obsolete by the Fountain of Youth or a Bear in a Human Suit gives any scene a comic foil. Intentionally, no one begins on the same page and their contribution combinations are both unexpected and hilarious.
Everything surrounding scene establishment and role creation is meant to extract fun from the group. The influence mechanic forces absurd ideas from players so they can win. Each round of Conspire, every player gets three tokens used to declare a universal fact. Anything can become true. Players use influence to shape the world in such a way their character’s goals are completely logical. Almost all of this is fundamentally comedic. Comedy is about subverting expectations and influence undermines the expectations of the world other players hold. The speed of gameplay forces players to spend influence as knee-jerk reactions, favoring the effective over the tactful. When someone is threatening to slander you on the internet, of course you spend a token to make lying online impossible.
There are a ton of serious story games out there. Exploring relationships and class struggles are important exercises we should do as humans. CPG’s philosophy is that exploration is best done through laughter, satire, and a general levity. Ostensibly, Conspire is a game about arguing with your friends about meaningful decisions. In practice, you are debating about zombie segregation, which Greek god should be Prom Queen, and whether the emo kid should be allowed to have a séance with that corpse you found.